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29-year-old boosting Taiwan's soft power

Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association's Chiayo Kuo promoting nation through novel initiatives

Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association founder Chiayo Kuo. (Facebook, Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association photo)

Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association founder Chiayo Kuo. (Facebook, Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — At only 29 years old, Chiayo Kuo (郭家佑) is a force to be reckoned with.

Through ambition, networking savvy, and tenacity, she is slowly revitalizing interest in soft power diplomacy among Taiwanese youth. Her Taipei-based NGO, Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association (TDDA), seeks to increase public awareness of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and promote the country overseas. Over the past three years, it has steadily gained attention from both foreign diplomatic missions in Taiwan and governments abroad.

Kuo recently talked with Taiwan News at the association’s office in Yuanshan, recounting how she got to where she is today, detailing the accomplishments of the NGO, and sharing her outlook on the future of Taiwanese diplomacy.

From Taiwan to the Balkans

After getting her degree in public policy, Kuo knew she wanted to work toward something bigger than herself. She decided to look for an opportunity to boost Taiwan’s international presence through unconventional means that the government could not use.

Thus, she left the workforce in 2017 and decided to move to the Balkan nation of Kosovo, as she liked the excitement and challenges of living in a lesser-known country.

Once there, she wasted no time diving into her first foray into digital diplomacy. She formulated a campaign to gather international support for Kosovo to receive a national internet domain name, which it still does not have to this day. To her, a domain name is an important signifier of sovereignty and an issue that young Kosovans would be passionate about.

As Taiwan faces similar political challenges as Kosovo, she believed it could share its experience with the Balkan country. The initiative, “Domain for Kosovo,” was launched with the hope a domain name would lead to “better national development and wider recognition,” Kuo stated.

She told Taiwan News that she put a lot of effort into networking, meeting an average of four to five people per day. Within two months, she had met with 38 groups.

Additionally, she researched how to attract followers on social media and run a fan page. She also contacted local journalists to spread the word about her project.

Kuo reasoned that “once my Facebook page had enough followers, the Kosovo government would start noticing and following my cause.” After just two months, the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora contacted the page and asked who was running it.

At this point, she already had local partners on her team who were responsible for correspondence with the government and other organizations.

She was invited to Kosovan TV shows and radio programs because her domain campaign was an important issue for locals. Kuo was willing to take as many interviews as she could, saying, “This way I can promote Taiwan to Kosovans and expose Kosovans to Taiwanese.”

She went on to say that “Though Kosovo still hasn’t received a domain name yet, if Kosovans look back to see what happened in 2017, Taiwan will have played a role in this small facet of the country’s history.”

Kuo eventually had the opportunity to partner with the Kosovo Museum to hold a digital exhibition, called “Kosovo Next10,” to mark the nation’s 10 years of independence. This showcase merged Kosovan youths’ thoughts on what type of country Kosovo would be in the next 10 years with artwork created by Taiwanese designers.

According to Kuo, the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport really enjoyed the exhibit, which lasted from June 27 to July 22, 2018. The minister even wrote to her Taiwanese counterpart at the time, Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君), about working together in the future, but nothing ever came of it.

After one year campaigning for a national domain name for Kosovo and promoting Taiwan-Kosovo cultural exchanges, Kuo returned to Taiwan.

A new beginning

Kuo first worked at a company upon returning home but soon decided to invest all her efforts into a new organization, which was originally to be the Taiwan-Kosovo Cultural Exchange Association.

However, she decided against it, naming it the Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association instead. This “broader and more general” name would allow the organization to expand in many different directions.

Kuo stated that she wanted to base this new diplomacy association on a similar model as the one she had used in Kosovo to attract the younger generation — a digital-centric initiative focused on building soft power through social media.

She began to establish communication channels with foreign offices in Taipei and with local media. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is already a perfectly capable official government institute, she remarked, but through cultural exchanges, “You can easily reach more locals.”

Kuo noted that the general public does not really follow MOFA’s official social media or communication channels. Therefore, most Taiwanese do not know what is happening in the diplomatic world.

Though she acknowledged that the Taiwanese government sometimes provides money for local groups to do international exchanges, Kuo said, “It does not have a comprehensive strategy or plan when it comes to soft power diplomacy.” She said that she believes communication between the government and the public could be better.

She added that sometimes when groups want to pursue a project or report on an event, they may hesitate to proceed because “They do not know what direction MOFA would prefer or what kind of official narrative to adhere to” due to lack of communication.

To this end, Kuo’s organization also does policy research and seeks to encourage Taiwanese young people to get involved in diplomacy. She said that since its establishment, the organization has also been taking note of how similar groups operate abroad.

Soft power success

The TDDA currently has eight full-time employees, 16 part-time workers, and 120 volunteers. In July 2019, she and her team decided to expand into Vietnam, so she flew to the Southeast Asian nation in search of collaborative opportunities.

After much contemplation, Kuo decided to create an online show hosted by Taiwanese and Vietnamese doctors who shared medical treatments for various ailments. She found that Vietnamese often used the internet to look for cures for their illnesses rather than going to the doctor. For example, she stated that “If they have a cold, they will just look up treatments on Facebook and even click on hashtags to see how others dealt with their malady.”

Given their familiarity with searching online, an internet show with actual doctors would be a better, safer resource for Vietnamese, she reckoned. The first episode aired in December 2019, and over time, viewers began trusting Taiwanese doctors and their medical knowledge as “they saw them interacting and cooperating with Vietnamese doctors on the show,” Kuo said.

Since the success of the program, Kuo said the organization is now in talks with Ho Chi Minh City Television to develop a show about Taiwan-Vietnam relations in cooperation with Taiwanese production company World Softest Production Film Limited (世界柔軟數位影像文化). She is contemplating how to get funding from the Taiwanese government for this project.

Kuo said the TDDA and a local Vietnamese group jointly rented a three-floor apartment in Ho Chi Minh City to create the "Taiwan Corner" in November 2019. The first floor has a beverage shop, while the second floor is a Mandarin classroom and the third is a public space for Vietnamese and Taiwanese to learn more about each other’s countries.

When the coronavirus pandemic began spreading around the world last February, she had no choice but to come back to Taiwan. Once again, Kuo had to figure out what her next step would be.

She ended up paying visits to foreign diplomatic missions and began linking with foreigners and foreign organizations in the country as well as with the Taiwanese public and government.

Through these relationships, Kuo “wanted to assist foreigners in Taiwan in interacting with Taiwanese government and to help foreign official organizations have exchanges with the Taiwanese public,” she explained.

In 2020, the TDDA was meeting with more Central and South American countries. These efforts culminated in the two-day Copa America soccer competition last October, which the organization helped plan over multiple months.

The competition has always been held annually at Fu-Jen University in conjunction with a Latin American food festival and attended mostly by university students. However, last year’s event was by far the largest edition ever, with 4,000 attendants and 24 teams.

“We had a group of volunteers and our own team working together to write press releases about the event in English, Spanish, and Mandarin,” Kuo said. They also contacted Central and South American journalists a month in advance to promote the competition.

Ultimately, 28 media outlets reported on the event, which was significant since there was no other large-scale soccer competition in the world due to the pandemic.

Kuo also mentioned a Norwegian parade the TDDA organized on May 17, 2020, to celebrate Norway’s national day. "Norway normally holds a large festivity to mark the special day," she said, "but the pandemic prevented any such event from taking place."

The group first reached out to Norwegians in Taipei to get the ball rolling, and the event was later reported in Norwegian media. A video of the parade was even shared with the Norwegian royal family, and the royal court told the TDDA that King Harald was very happy with it.

Post-COVID plans

When asked about the major misconceptions Taiwanese have about their nation’s diplomacy, Kuo pondered for a few seconds before replying, “Taiwanese generally think the country is a 'rich guy,’ always giving away money and material things.”

“They don’t understand the motives behind these [charitable] actions. Or they don’t know what Taiwan’s assistance to other countries entails, so they think Taiwan is conducting ‘dollar diplomacy,’” she said, adding that Taiwan’s diplomacy is, in fact, “multi-faceted.”

Kuo went on to mention that the biggest challenge for the TDDA is funding, and she continuously reminds the public that all events require money.

She stated that “People falsely assume that since my team members and I often go abroad, we are financially well off.” Nothing could be further from the truth, she insisted, stressing that “You need money to do these international projects and initiatives. English translation, communications, and logistics all cost money.”

Despite the constant stress and financial headaches, she is adamant about growing the organization. She lamented that Taiwan does not have very much English-language content to inform people what different organizations in the country are doing.

This year, the TDDA is engaged in a slew of projects, Kuo said. Next month, it is holding a Caribbean-themed fair, and October will see the next Copa America.

Additionally, the association is working with the group Small Island Big Song to release three music videos online featuring Oceanic and Taiwanese indigenous musicians. Kuo said the TDDA also wants to create a platform in cooperation with an African-Taiwan duo to help African students in Taiwan find jobs.

“This would entail bringing African students to visit Taiwanese businesses and providing consultations in job hunting,” she said.

For now, Kuo said the goal is to let Taiwanese know more about Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and to help foreign diplomatic missions organize activities in Taiwan. She pointed to a chart pinned on the office's wall showing all the diplomatic offices in Taipei, saying, “We want to contact and visit each of them to see what each office requires in terms of public relations with the Taiwanese public, and we want to help them link up with local groups.”

The group also wants to create a series of 15 videos with these offices to show the public what they are up to, she explained.

What the future holds

One thing the TDDA seeks to work on, Kuo pointed out, is to engage more with international students to learn about their experiences in Taiwan. Kuo said she wants to take these discussions and formulate them into policy suggestions so the government can better cater to foreign students.

“Once these students return to their home countries, they are likely to speak up for Taiwan. You have to make sure their experiences in Taiwan are good to ensure they will do so,” she stated, adding that “It’s a type of investment that Taiwan should pursue.”

She noted that the Taiwanese government offers international students scholarships while they are in Taiwan but that once they leave, the government generally stops engaging with them.

Highlighting the importance of following up with foreign students after they return home, she brought up Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib’s visit to Taiwan last August. When asked why he was so friendly to Taiwan, he mentioned that he had studied in the country when he was a student, Kuo said.

She stated that in addition to Facebook and Twitter, the association has recently begun to use Clubhouse. Kuo said they already held a 500-person discussion on Myanmar’s military coup as well as a talk on Taiwan-Japan relations.

Despite its reputation as a trendy app, she believes Clubhouse allows strangers to familiarize themselves with her group. “We can also get in contact with people who we may not have otherwise been able to meet,” she said.

Furthermore, since the app is voice-based, exchanges are more intimate, thus making it easier to be “persuasive” and “assertive” when sharing ideas, she added.

Speaking on Taiwan’s diplomatic strengths, she said, “Taiwan’s advantage is that it is very flexible. Taiwanese are also able to rally together and mobilize easily for a cause.”

This is most evident in how the nation managed the coronavirus pandemic and in its mask donation campaign at the height of the crisis, she said. As a result, the international community has a more favorable view of Taiwan post-COVID.

“The problem now is: how can Taiwan ride this wave in order to foster deeper, more meaningful relationships with other country’s peoples and government agencies?” Kuo said.

One other concern she has is that there may not be enough manpower in Taiwan’s diplomatic corps. Nevertheless, the young diplomacy advocate says she is optimistic about the future of her nation's global engagement.

Though heavily involved in the diplomatic community, Kuo maintains she has no plans to become a diplomat, saying she is much happier in the realm of soft power advocacy.

Updated : 2022-05-26 16:41 GMT+08:00